Saturday, December 5, 2015

Enter the Sloth

Martial Artists are not, as a category, renowned for their laziness.  It takes a certain degree of gumption to show up at the dojo several nights a week when you might otherwise be watching TV or reading a book.  We spend those hours in varying degrees of exertion: punching bags, throwing opponents, and engaging in other activities that usually leave us gasping and sweating by the end of the evening.  Some superficial observers might think Tai Chi is an exception to the laziness rule, as its slow motion movements looks less engaging than a slow walk.  Those observers have probably never trained Tai Chi the traditional way, in which you're not even allowed to begin training until you’ve spent an hour standing with your knees bent and your arms held horizontally in front of you.  Five minutes of that was enough to give me a very healthy respect for anybody who can pull it off.

So yes, we Martial Arts tend to prize ourselves on being energetic.  The most active and energetic students are praised.  The lazy ones are considered the bad apples, and ordered to shape up or ship out.

Is it time for us to reconsider this situation just a little bit?

Being energetic is a fine thing, of course.  But it’s useful to reflect that it’s an attribute to be used, not a virtue to bask in.  And it’s essential to remember that the best technique is the one that the laziest person can use.

By way of example, and at risk of dating myself, a few decades ago there was a raging debate going on in the pages of Black Belt magazine about the efficacy of high kicks.  Opponents of high kicks said they simply didn’t work.  Bruce Lee famously said that kicking somebody in the head made as much sense as punching them in the foot.  Proponents of high kicks responded that the head is the most vital target, and if you can hit it hard, the fight will quickly be over.  They also noted that the leg is much stronger than the arm, as it carries so much more weight, and therefore a great tool to use for hitting the head.

A devoted practitioner of Tae Kwon Do at the time, I was in the pro-head kicking school.  My stated reasons were the ones above.  My real reason was that it just looked so cool when the hero would head-kick his opponents in the movies.  Having developed a fair degree of flexibility, I got pretty good at executing a head kick in sparring, and would use it regularly.  It was an effective tool at keeping off opponents who might shrug off attacks I made to their torsos.

I’m older now, and my flexibility isn’t quite what it once was.  I’m less enamored of head kicks than I was when I was younger.  Does this reflect an evolution of my thinking to a wiser perspective?  Or is it just sour grapes that I can no longer pull off this wicked cool move?

The biggest challenge in kicking somebody in the head is the time it takes to move your foot from the ground to the five or six feet in the air where the opponent’s head is perched. For sake of argument, let’s allow that it is possible for a martial artist to train him or herself to have sufficient speed to execute this kick faster than the average opponent is likely to be able to react.  I’m not saying this is an easy attribute to train, but let’s call it possible and leave it at that.

Now that martial artist is facing their opponent in combat, and has a choice:
  • Kick their opponent in the head with a reasonable chance of success
  • Kick their opponent in the knee with a much higher chance of success

Because remember, however fast you’ve trained yourself to kick somebody in the head, you can raise your foot to knee level if a third to a fifth of that time.  If you head kick is reliable, your knee kick will be unstoppable.

So.  Even if the ultimate plan is to kick your opponent in the head, wouldn’t it be better if they had a broken knee to start off with?  They’ll be limping around, not able to move effectively, and quite possibly their head will be much lower than it was originally as they lean down to grasp their leg in pain.

In other words, it’s not a question of whether or not a head kick is feasible.  Maybe it is, maybe it’s not, but you’ll always be that much faster when attacking a lower target.  Why choose a somewhat efficient technique when you can choose a highly efficient one?  Why be energetic when you can be lazy?

This principle extends far beyond kicking targets.  In our dojo we spend a lot of time throwing our opponents.  The hardest students to train are the ones that are naturally strong, because they find that for most of their opponents, they can simply lift them up and toss them down.  Well and good as long as you’re fresh and your opponents are not much larger than anybody in the dojo.  But what about when you’re not?  However effective you may be at throwing somebody energetically, you’ll be much better if you learn to throw them with very little energy.  If you want to then use additional energy to supplement your efficient technique, that’s fine, but don’t make it the cornerstone of what you do.

So while working out in your dojo, remember that while it’s good to emulate the strong and energetic students, it can be useful to study and emulate the weak and lazy ones as well.  Watch them especially when they spar or grapple.  If they make something work, it’s because they’ve found a very efficient way of doing it.  Something that will work well for you when you’re out of breath and can barely lift your arms or legs.

Your next encounter may well depend upon it.